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review 2017-11-30 15:57
Music of the Distant Stars
Music of the Distant Stars - Alys Clare

England, the 1080s

 

The singer watched as the young girl with the copper-coloured hair and the boyish figure wrested open the door of the little house and disappeared inside. You hear me, don't you, lass? he thought. You listen to my song and you go rigid as you perceive my pain. You have a good heart and I'm sorry that I frighten you.

He heard footsteps on the path: a quick, light step that he recognized as belonging to the older woman who lived in the little house. He slipped back into his hiding place and watched as she hurried up to the door and let herself in. She was a healer; his sense of smell was strong, and he could detect her profession from the scent of her clothes, as he could from those of the copper-haired girl. The house itself smelt of clean, fresh things: of herbvs and fresh-cut grass. He liked the smell. He liked being close to the house. It gave him comfort, of a sort.

But there was no real comfort, not any more. His world had come to an end. He was alone, away from the place he had known all his life. He felt the great surge of anguish rise up in him, and a few notes of his song emerged from his lips. As if the music lanced his pain, for a few moments it eased.

Music. There was always the music.

 

This is the third of the Aelf Fen Mysteries featuring the healer Lassair and written by Alys Clare, the author of the perhaps better-known Hawkenlye novels. The Aelf Fen Mysteries are set in a slightly earlier period than those, soon after the Norman Conquest when the victors of Hastings were still hated strangers in the land. Two of Lassaire's uncles had died at Hastings, as had the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons of much of the population – a thing not easily forgotten or forgiven.

 

Lassair is a seventeen-year-old apprentice healer, whose family live in the Fenland village of Aelf Fen, though she herself now lives and studies with her aunt, the local wise woman, herbalist, midwife and – whisper it! – witch.

 

At dawn one midsummer morning, Lassair sets out for the community's burial island, sent by her aunt to put a fresh flower garland on the stone slab that covered the grave of her recently deceased grandmother, Cordeilla. She also has with her the symbols of earth, air, fire and water intended to summon spirits to help her in her prayers. It is still dark, but Lassair has no trouble finding the path through the treacherous swamps and bogs, for she is a dowser who can "see hidden tracks and pathways that are all but invisible to others." She is very sensitive. She is also very superstitious.

 

Suddenly my feet seemed to freeze to the ground and I could not move. I stood on the narrow path, my heart thumping so hard it hurt. [...] The path still glowed faintly, but on either side the land was clothed in its thick-leafed summer foliage, providing far too many places where someone bent on harming me could hide.

I was not afraid of ill-intentioned humans, however. The entities I dreaded had no need of hiding places, for they were, I was quite sure, perfectly capable of invisibility. They could creep up me without my suspecting a thing, and the first I would know was when icy fingers clutched at my throat and supernaturally strong arms thrust my head down into the black waters till I drwoned and went to join their grey, shimmering company ...

With a great effort, I commanded myself not to be so fanciful and cowardly.

 

Teeth chattering with fear, she makes way way across onto the island, only to discover that someone has moved the slab of stone. And peering in, that there are now two bodies in the grave.

 

Whoever moved the slab of stone put that other body in there, she realises. And that person wanted to conceal the body. That person was a murderer!

 

This is all too much for her, and she goes racing back to her aunt.

 

The dead body turns out to be that of a pregnant girl much the same age as Lassair herself. Her name was Ida, and she was seamstress to a rather unpleasant Norman lady. It also turns out that that Norman lady's fiancé, Sir Alain, was rather fonder of Ida that he was was of the Norman lady. Was he the murderer? No one could possibly suggest it, for not only was he a Norman, but he was the local justiciar. And anyway, Lassair rather likes him.

 

No, the chief suspect seems to be a certain Derman, the village idiot, who "looks like a gargoyle and frightens little children", but himself has the mind of a child. And Derman is the brother of the gorgeous Zarina, whom Lassair's own brother, Haward, plans to marry. Only Zarina won't marry him because, she says, she will not impose her brother on him. So wouldn't it suit Haward very well for Derman to be found guilty of the murder? – or so some people can't help wondering.

 

But who is the "invisible singer", a minstrel who seems to have been in love with the dead girl? He is surely unlikely to have been the murderer, but he could have been the father of her unborn baby.

 

All very complicated – and full not only of the magic and mystery we have come to expect from this very special author, but of a love of, and knowledge of, the English countryside that is, in my experience, quite unique among medieval mystery writers.

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review 2017-11-23 15:16
The Subtle Serpent
The Subtle Serpent - Peter Tremayne

A Celtic Mystery featuring Sister Fidelma

 

Ireland , AD 666

 

Sister Síomha turned slowly wondering what Brónach was staring at in such a horror-struck fashion.

What she saw made her raise a hand to her mouth as if to suppress a cry of fear.

Hanging by one ankle, which was secured to the rope on which the pail was usually suspended, was a naked female body. It was still glistening white from its immersion in the icy water of the deep well. The body was hanging head downwards so that the upper part of the torso, the head and shoulders, were beyond their view being hidden in the well-head.

[...]

Sister Síomha moved to the well-head and peered down, hands reaching forward to swing the body out of the well. Then, with a sharp cry which she could not stifle, she turned away, her face becoming a mask of shocked surprise.

Curious, Sister Brónach moved forward and peered into the well-head. In the semi-gloom of the well she saw that where the head of the body should have been was nothing. The body had been decapitated. What remained of the neck and shoulders were stained dark with blood.

 

In the Abbey of the Salmon of the Three Wells, the naked and mutilated corpse of a young woman is discovered in one of the wells. She had been whipped, her head had been hacked off – so there was no means of identifying her – and tied to her left arm was a stick of aspen wood on which Ogham characters had been carved. The Ogham read: "Bury her well. The Mórrigú has awakened!" In her other hand, by contrast, she still clasped a copper crucifix.

 

A great mystery, and Fidelma is sent to try to solve it. She travels by ship, for the abbey is on the coast, and as they are nearing their destination they sight  a French merchant vessel heading erratically towards some submerged rocks. Ross, the captain of Fidelma's ship, investigates.  It turns out that the French ship has been abandoned. Apart from a few traces of blood, there is no sign of either crew or passengers, or of cargo.

 

Another great mystery.

 

But then Fidelma finds a Missal she recognises. She had given it to her friend Brother Eadulf when she parted from him in Rome. How had it come to be here? Yet another mystery – and now Fidelma has a personal interest in solving it.

 

Those of us who have read later stories in the series will by now be completely hooked, for we already know that Eadulf is fated to become Fidelma's "Watson". Will it happen here, in this book, we wonder – our sympathies all with Eadulf, for Fidelma can be quite as clever, as arrogant and as sarcastic as Sherlock Holmes ever was.  

 

As always with this series, then: highly recommended.

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review 2017-11-17 15:18
Shroud of Dishonour
Shroud of Dishonour - Maureen Ash

A Templar Knight Mystery

 

Lincoln, May, 1202

 

It was not the third but the fifth book in this series which came my way - I am working serendipitously here with second-hand paperbacks - and this one opens with an unusual and mysterious Prologue: two Knights Templar outside a brothel in the suburbs of Acre (in Outremer, the Holy Land), one reluctant to enter, the other determined to go in and do his business – which is not, as it happens, what you might expect.

 

It is a story that would be all too easy to spoil by inadvertently blurting out "spoilers"; suffice it to say that what happens there, then, is intimately connected with the death a few months later in Lincoln of two prostitutes, and an attack on a third who manages to defend herself with a sharp little knife she carries on her belt (wise girl). (Though no doubt in modern Britain she would be charged with assault and being in possession of a deadly weapon.)

 

Why prostitutes? wonders our hero, Sir Bascot de Marins. Because they are easy victims, peculiarly vulnerable and defenceless? Yet the killer seems to be targeting the Templars rather than prostitutes as a group: he makes each murder look as though it had been committed by a member of the Order.

 

Or is the killer in fact a member of the Order?

 

Bascot, who first came to Lincoln (with Gianni, a starving street-kid he had picked on his travels, tagging along) in order to recuperate after eight years as a captive – a slave – in the Middle East, has now rejoined the Order and is due to sail for Portugal, where the Templars are committed to aiding the Portuguese in their fight against the Moors. But of course he is roped in to assist in the investigation and driven by his hatred of cold-blooded murder of the innocent and defenceless he does so with his usual quiet modesty.

 

But will he go to Portugal when all this is sorted out? Will the next Templar Knight Mystery be set there, among the olives and the orange trees? Or will this be the last of these books? You have to read to the very end to find out – and to find out who has been going around killing working girls, and why.

 

I love this series set in my second favourite period (the 12th and early 13th centuries), in this case during the reign of King John, son of Henry II (though the King himself does not appear in this story). 

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review 2017-11-13 16:49
Death of a Squire
Death of a Squire - Maureen Ash

Back again - after a long break! - with some of the books I've been reading. And, yes, I'm still into the medieval period ...

 

(The second Templar Knight Mystery) Lincoln, autumn, 1200 AD

 

'He's nowt but a lad,' said Talli. 'Looks to be no more than fifteen or sixteen. And from the way he's been trussed, he didn't string himself up there. Why would anyone bring a youngster like that out here and hang him?'

'I don't know and I don't care,' Fulcher replied. 'I'm going to forget I ever saw him and if you two have any sense in your addled pates you'll do the same.'

Laden with their booty, the three men made haste down the track towards the stream that had been the destination of the deer thay had killed. In its water the poachers would place their steps until they were well away from the scene of their crime so that any dogs used to track them would lose their telltale scent and the smell of the deer's blood. Above them a slight breeze rattled the dry branches of the oak and the body swayed slightly, then moved a little more as the first of the crows landed on the bright thatch of hair that topped the corpse's head. Twisted under the noose, caught by the violence of the tightening rope, was the boy's cap, the colourful peacock's feather that had once jauntily adorned it now hanging crushed and bedraggled. As the crows began their feast, it was loosened and fluttered slowly to the ground.

 

This is the second book in the series and I haven't read the first, but that wasn't a problem. You are soon put in the picture. An ex-Templar, Sir Bascot de Marins, is living at Lincoln Castle. He had already solved one murder for the castellan, Lady Nicolaa, (the first book) and now when another nysterious death occurs she turns to him again.

 

A young man, a squire, has been hanged deep in the forest. He was trussed up, so it cannot have been suicide. Nicolaa's husband, the Sheriff, a rather stupid man interested only in hunting who leaves all his more boring duties to her, wants to blame it on poachers or outlaws, easy scapegoats, but the boy's dagger and fine clothing were not stolen, so Nicolaa and de Marins think that unlikely.

 

It turns out that the squire, Hubert de Tornay, was an unpleasant boy. No one could stand him and no one is sorry he is dead. There are many potential suspects. What worries Nicolaa, though, is that the boy had apparently been claiming to know details of a conspiracy against the king. In the year 1200, "Bad King John" was still new to the throne and many felt that the king should really be John's nephew Arthur, a boy who lived in France. What was worse, King John himself was on his way to Lincoln to meet there with King William of Scotland. The murderer had to be found before King John's arrival for John was a suspicious and vindictive man.

 

The squire was also a notorious woman-chaser, so there are girls involved. He had had a rendez-vous in the forest with a village girl that night. But he had been seen riding into the forest with a woman from the city up behind him on the horse. Or had he? Were the villagers lying?

 

De Matins questions a charcoal burner and his sons who live in that part of the forest. The next day they are brutally murdered. Then his servant, Gianni, disappears – kidnapped. Gianni was a starving street-kid de Marins had picked on his travels, and had now grown very fond of. Was the kidnapper also the murderer of the squire and the charcoal-burner's family?

 

It is exciting and well-written, and seems historically accurate. I am certainly going to read the first book in the series, The Alehouse Murders, as soon as I can get hold of a copy. I also want to know what will happen in the third book. At the end of this one, de Marins is faced with a difficult choice: to return to the Order of the Templars and full obedience, or to renounce all his ties with them and cease to call himself a Templar. What will he do?

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text 2017-11-13 02:19
If anyone is interested
The Cambridge Medieval History 1 - John B. Bury

The Kindle edition of this volume is $2.99, and it looks like the rest of the set is similarly priced.

 

I used to drool (figuratively) over these at the public library when I was in high school.

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